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Contemporary Music

There was always a risk that Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday concert at the Royal Albert Hall was going to have so many guests that the birthday boy became an extra at his own celebration, but as it turned out he was on stage virtually throughout, whether singing his own songs or duetting with or backing his guests, and an impressive lot they were too. From The Stranglers Hugh Cornwall who was, somewhat surprisingly to most present, in a school band with him aged 14, through Fairport colleagues Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol, the omnipresent Danny Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Martin & Eliza Carthy, Maddy Prior, Kate Rusby, Olivia Cheney, the whole Thompson clan and Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour! I could have done without one of the two Stranglers tracks and the Spinal Tap joke fell a bit flat, but there were way more highs than lows in tribute to a genuine legend who has entertained me for fifty of his seventy years.

Opera

Grimeborn continued its hugely successful roll into September with a superb and rare revival of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Monteccchi. The singing was of an extraordinarily high standard and, at close quarters in in Studio Two, very loud! Later that week, Don Jo was a spin on Mozart’s Don Giovani which was loud in another sense altogether. I’m all up for modern take’s and I was expecting some gender changes, but I wasn’t expecting the recorded music (not much of it Mozart), the fact only two of them could really sing, the long scene breaks and the tackiness of it all. It was such a contrast to the three Grimeborn high’s which had preceded it.

Classical Music

My third and final Prom, another Sunday morning one, was short in time but huge in numbers, with eight choirs totalling 600-700 singers placed in four sections of the auditorium for John Luther Adams’ In the Name of the Earth, a choral homage to the planet with percussion effects and movement from the choirs. It was hugely atmospheric and the sound just wrapped around you and filled the Royal Albert Hall. A big bold experimental success.

The opening concert of the Wigmore Hall season was a Britten feast, with four of his song cycles sung by four young British soloists – one soprano, one mezzo, a tenor and a baritone – and all of them sang beautifully. A real treat for a Britten fan.

The LSO season opening weekend at the Barbican included a rare outing (sighting!) of Messiaen’s final work Eclairs sur l’Au-dela. Famous for orchestrating birdsong and hearing colours, Messiaen’s final 70 minute work peeps into the afterlife and requires 126 players. It showed off the virtuosity of the LSO individually and collectively and Simon Rattle’s love of the work was infectious.

I don’t think I’ve ever known the sedate Wigmore Hall erupt like it did after laBarocca’s concert of the first (Italian) version of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polierno. I don’t think I’ve seen so many, twenty, on that tiny stage either. The soprano, Roberta Mameli, blew me away and the bass sang lower than I’ve ever heard before, but I wasn’t keen on the tone of the contralto’s very deep voice. A treat nonetheless.

Film
Despite two lovely performances, I found Mrs. Lowry & Son a bit dull. It’s more BBC4 bio drama than cinema release.

More lovely performances and beautiful filming, but The Sacrifice was too art house for me, slow and ponderous.

I know it’s just posh soap opera, but I did love Downton Abbey. The strands of the story came together expertly, it’s a who’s who of fine British acting (with Imelda Staunton joining the regulars from the TV series) and it looks gorgeous.

The Last Tree was a beautifully made film which could so easily have been judgemental but was in fact hopeful. Superb performances too.

I wasn’t expecting a film about Chinese Americans returning to their homeland to say goodbye to their dying mother / grandmother to be funny, but The Farewell was, and the real life revelation at the end a delightful surprise. Charming film.

Art

Urban Impulses 1959-2016 at the Photographer’s Gallery is almost 50 years of Latin American photography, mostly in black & white and it contained some terrific images. One of the best exhibitions at this venue in a long time. Upstairs was the inaugural New Talent exhibition which contained some impressive work but was a bit skewed to the taste of its single selector / curator. I think they need a panel to ensure a diversity of work.

The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain was very big, with the amount of detail sometimes overwhelming, and too much religious imagery for my taste, but it was a very comprehensive review of his work and life, particularly good at the biographical aspects.

I was beginning to wonder if Anthony Gormley was a one-trick pony, as all we seem to see are his cast iron men. Well, they make a spectacular appearance in one room of his Royal Academy show, but there’s so much more in the other twelve, half of it new, including two whole room works which you walk through – though he did pinch the idea of his reflective room from Richard Wilson’s 20/50!

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Tim Walker’s Wonderful Things at the V&A. I didn’t know much about the work of this photographer, probably because it’s mostly fashion, but the first room familiarises you with his posed, highly stylised, stage-manged work. From there, ten spaces each record, on ‘stage sets’ a photoshoot inspired by something in the V&A, which accompanies them – snuff boxes, Aubrey Beardsley prints, stained glass and so on. It was unique, surreal and rather extraordinary.

For Mark Leckey’s O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Tate Britain have built a replica of the space under a motorway where he played as a child. Inside the space, there are three video works, but as we were given a leaflet just before we entered the darkness, we didn’t really understand them until we left! That said, it was strangely hypnotic, though whether it was worth all that effort and a £15 entrance fee is another matter.

Drawing Attention, an exhibition of digital architectural drawings at the Roca Gallery, was a bit specialist for me, though there were some nice images, but I was there to see Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary building anyway; a beautiful space to display up-market bathroom fittings!

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Classical Music

It’s baffling that Hubert Parry’s oratorio Judith hasn’t been performed in London for 130 years. How many Messiah’s and Passion’s Mark and John have we had since then? The London English Song Festival made a fine job of a demanding work to a sadly sparse Royal Festival Hall audience. It really ought to be at The Proms!

Handel’s Semele at the Barbican was a truly transatlantic affair, with British period chamber orchestra The English Concert, New York’s Clarion Choir and three soloists from each side of the pond, and it was terrific, a truly uplifting evening.

I’m a lover of Handel, but I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Handel’s Brockes-Passion. It’s so rarely performed, and it’s taken the Academy of Ancient Music over a year to produce a performing edition, so there was much anticipation in the audience of Handelians at the Barbican on Good Friday 300 years after it was first performed. They lived up to it, delivering a finely played and sung performance of this underrated work. Soprano Elizabeth Watts was particularly wonderful.

Contemporary Music

I was taken to see The Upbeat Beatles tribute band at Melton Theatre as a surprise. Though the production values (costumes and video projections) were a bit amateur, the musicianship was excellent and you couldn’t help being swept away by the nostalgia of listening to the best back catalogue of any band ever.

Joe Jackson’s London Palladium concert celebrated his four decades in music by focusing on five albums – one from each decade, including his first and his new one. It was good to hear hits alongside some neglected pieces and some new ones. His band still includes brilliant bassist Graham Maby – they’ve worked together for 46 years, in what must be one of the longest lasting musical partnerships ever – with a terrific new guitarist and drummer making it one of the tightest bands I’ve ever heard; positively thrilling.

I think I’m going to have to abandon my search for a thoroughly satisfying Rufus Wainwright concert. I’ve only regretted one of the last seven, but there’s always something marring them, often too much messing around. This time it was song choice. He hasn’t released a new album for seven years, so he decided the tour, visiting the Royal Albert Hall, would celebrate his 20-year career by playing his 2nd album in full. That wasn’t a bad idea, but culling most of the rest from his first album was. The last two encores made you realise how much of the rest of his back catalogue you missed. No one album is without fault and the best songs are spread over all of them, so selecting two from seven is a flawed strategy, and an unnecessary interval a mistake!

Maria Friedman’s new cabaret show From the Heart at Brasserie Zedel showcased a very unpredictable and very personal selection of songs, benefiting from the intimacy of the Crazy Coqs room. Pianist Theo Jamieson is more than a match for her regular Jason Carr and she delivered what she promised – ‘From the Heart’ – ninety minutes with friends in her front room. Lovely.

Dance

I had to be talked into English National Ballet’s She Persisted at Sadler’s Wells, a triple-bill of ballets by and about women. They were brilliant – an exciting, original one about Frida Kahlo, a short very dramatic one about Nora from Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (with Philip Glass the perfect accompaniment), and Pina Bausch’s thrilling 1975 version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. After so many dance evenings of little over an hour, this was a real feast.

Comedy

I couldn’t resist the prospect of Rob Brydon in conversation with (or ‘probes’, as it was billed) Barry Humphries at the London Palladium. He’s 85 years old now and his anecdotes and stories take time, but he was outrageously and refreshingly politically incorrect it had me in floods of tears on a number of occasions. Two very funny people and two of my favourites.

Film

White Crow, about Rudolph Nureyev’s defection, was a good if not great film. I particularly enjoyed the cold war setting and style.

I’ve much admired how Jessie Buckley, runner-up in the TV casting of Nancy, has managed her career, putting it on hold to go to RADA, then working on stage and in both TV and films. She’s excellent in Wild Rose, a superb film about a wannabe Glaswegian country star, which uses both her acting and singing talents fully.

Art

A mammoth catch-up month!

Van Goch in Britain at Tate Britain is a brilliant exhibition, though the curatorial conceit is a bit dubious. I was very glad we entered as it opened and left the first room for last as we avoided the crowds, the biggest I’ve ever seen at an exhibition. Mike Nelson’s installation The Asset Strippers in the vast Duveen Gallery upstairs makes you think about the demise of our manufacturing base by filling the gallery with industrial items, but it isn’t particularly aesthetically appealing!

The Renaissance Nude at The Royal Academy exceeded my expectations, including a surprising number of works by real masters, though again too much religious subject matter for my liking. Philida Barlow’s three room exhibition of new work, Cul-de-sac, also at the RA, was hardly worth visiting for free, so I pity the non-members who had to fork out £12 for tosh, albeit monumentally large tosh.

The exhibition of Edward Munch drawings Love and Angst at the British Museum was way better than I was expecting and so much more than The Scream, though mostly just as dark! It effectively forms a frieze of his life of anxiety.

Two Temple Place is one of London’s most beautiful buildings, but it isn’t a great exhibition space, and John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing suffered from this in an exhibition that wasn’t particularly well curated either. I learnt a lot about him, though (included how opinionated he was), which made the trip worthwhile.

The Hayward Gallery had two very interesting but completely different exhibitions. Diane Arbus: In the Beginning featured a stunning selection of late 50’s / early 60’s B&W photos of New York life, with brilliant titles for the works. French-Algerian Kader Attia’s somewhat angry multi-media installations The Museum of Emotions were more challenging, and I felt I was being fed anti-colonialist propaganda. Still, a fascinating pairing and worth a visit.

At Tate Modern, another artist I’d never heard of, surrealist Dorothea Tanning. It turns out she was married to Max Ernst. Though many of the early works are somewhat derivative of more famous surrealists, they are great pictures. She moved on to a more impressionistic style and eventually soft sculpture, which is where she lost me. The less said about Franz West’s work, in the same gallery, the better, so I’ll just say ‘tosh’ again.

I’m not really one for fashion, but a visit to the V&A’s very theatrical Galliano exhibition a while back wowed me, so I decided to give Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams a go as its free for members. Whether you’re interested in frocks or not, the design and display of this show is spectacular. Being the first in at 10am helped, as my iPhone & I had every room to ourselves. It was probably a mistake going to Mary Quant straight after. Even though she did more than anyone to make fashion accessible, and her story is well told in the exhibition, it’s not in the same league in terms of elegance, beauty and craftsmanship.

At the Serpentine Galleries another double-bill, beginning with Emma Kunz – Visionary Drawings, or as I’d rather call them Obsessive Pendulum-Assisted Pictures, a bit like ones made with those geometric drawing kits you used to get as a kid. Hito Steyerl: Power Plants was more interesting, video’s created by some sort of artificial intelligence. The explanation hurt my brain, but they looked pretty. There were all sorts of other things associated with the work, including walks and an app, but I focused on what was on view in the gallery.

Late 19th / early 20th century Spanish artist Sorolla is another one new to me and for once the National Gallery exhibition lived up to its title Master of Light. I was blown away by the beauty of the pictures, 55 of them, mostly from fairly obscure galleries or private collections, which made it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Gorgeous.

At the NPG, Martin Parr’s quirky, colourful, brash documentary photos made me smile. He’s good at capturing the British at the seaside in particular, though part of me feels Only Human is a bit patronising, even unfair on his subjects, as if they were in a freak show, but most of the time I just smile! By complete contrast Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard & Oliver is a collection of finely crafted Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits, though it did strain your eyes, and having to wait for a magnifying glass (there weren’t enough) then space to see them, all became too tiresome for me.

The surprising thing about the Sony World Photography Prize exhibition at Somerset House is that the amateurs outshine the professionals, who seem to be following a path of contrived, staged photos that owe more to post-photography manipulation than the creative eye of the photographer. Still it’s good to see amateur, student and young photographer works shining.

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Opera / Classical Music

My second Nash Ensemble War’s Embers concert at LSO St. Luke’s featured beautiful pieces from Bax and Butterworth with others by Rebecca Clarke and Patrick Hadley, neither of whom I’d ever heard of. I do enjoy these lunchtime treats.

BBC SO’s Total Immersion In Remembrance: World War I at the Barbican combined an excellent film about poet / composer Ivor Gurney, a concert by hugely talented GSMD students of pieces from composers who died during / because of the war, the first revival of Mark Anthony Turnage’s brilliant opera The Silver Tassie, David Lang’s choral work Memorial Ground performed in the foyer (the wrong location!) with a couple of talks and even a Virtual Reality experience, culminating in a BBC Singers concert featuring new choral works by Bob Chilcott and Roderick Williams, the former conventional but beautiful and the latter stunningly re-inventing recitative with a new form of prose setting. Given the reason for this mini-festival, it was a melancholic experience, but a musically thrilling one nonetheless.

The Royal Academy of Music’s production of Handel’s Semele will be one of my operatic highlights of the year. A production that looked great, a chorus and orchestra that sounded great and a star was born – Lithuanian soprano Lina Dambrauskaite. Gorgeous.

The BBC SO pairing of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto and Ethyl Smyth’s Mass in D at the Barbican Hall seemed odd, apparently put together because the former said some nice, if patronising, things about the latter. As it turned out, though, both were treats, the first because young pianist Pavel Kolesnikov was sensational and the latter, which I’ve been wanting to see for some time, because the chorus and orchestra sang and played terrifically.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, their Symphony Orchestra thrilled again under visiting American conductor Robert Trevino with a superbly played Bruckner’s 4th Symphony. I can’t think of a better way to spend a lunchtime.

I was attracted to a French song recital by Sarah Connolly & James Newby at Wigmore Hall as it featured two favourite composers, Ravel and Debussy, but their songs, which I didn’t really know, did not live up to their orchestral, chamber or operatic works, so despite the artistry I was a bit disappointed.

Back at Wigmore Hall, Mark Padmore & the Britten Sinfonia paired a Vaughn Williams song cycle with a premiere by Luke Styles and sadly the former overshadowed the other. The new piece was too challenging for me!

ENO staged Britten’s War Requiem, as it has done with other choral works before. I’m not sure the staging adds much, though there was some beautiful imagery, and the orchestral sound lost something in the pit, but the three soloists and chorus sounded terrific.

Dance

Layla & Majnun at Sadler’s Wells is the first Mark Morris show to disappoint me. Based on a Middle-Eastern / Central Asian Romeo & Juliet, with Azerbaijani music by the Silkroad Ensemble, it had little of his creative flair and the designs by favourite artist, now deceased, Howard Hodgkin disappointed. I liked the music initially, but it did wear me down long before the 75 minutes were up.

GoteborgsOperans dance company made their first visit to Sadler’s Wells with two of the most thrilling dances I’ve ever seen, both choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and designed by Anthony Gormley. Icon started with Gormley re-cycling some of the clay people in his 25-year-old work Field before tons of soft clay, thirteen dancers and five musicians playing mostly Japanese music became one mesmerising whole. In Noetic, nineteen dancers with a singer & percussionist and pliable metal strips which created a globe before your eyes were spellbinding too. Let’s hope they become regulars here.

Film

A catch-up month starting with A Star Is Born, which I enjoyed. Bradley Cooper and Lady Ga Ga were impressive, the former also as director in his debut.

Widows was a superbly unpredictable film, beautifully shot by Steve McQueen with musical theatre’s Cynthia Erivo proving she’s no one-trick pony.

First Man took a while to take off, but once it did I was captivated by the blend of personal story and actual history, which was gripping even though we all know the outcome!

I wasn’t a big fan of Queen, and I didn’t think they got Freddie Mercury right (teeth too pronounced and too camp), but I was surprised by how much Bohemian Rhapsody moved me and was very glad I went to see it.

Despite superb performances from Glenn Close & Jonathan Pryce, The Wife disappointed, largely because the emphasis on the endgame meant they brushed over the meat of the deceit.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was technically accomplished and well-acted but I didn’t really engage with the story, though it was good to see Hogwarts again, and to meet the young Dumbledore.

Art

Faux Pas of the year was visiting Ribera: Art of Violence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery thinking it was (Diego) Rivera! I’m afraid Ribera’s pictures of torture, and his particular penchant for flaying, were not to my taste! Fortunately, as a member it’s free, oh, and the brunch was great!

Modern Couples at the Barbican Art Gallery is a fascinating idea well executed, work by artist in relationships shown together, with biographical information about the relationship. It’s a huge affair featuring some 45 couples, some well-known and others unknown (to me), but had much to like in it.

The Hayward Gallery’s Space Shifters was a bit gimmicky, but again worth a visit, though I didn’t bother to queue for the highlight, Richard Wilson’s 20/50, as I’ve seen it quite a few times since its first outing at the tiny Matt’s Gallery 31 years ago.

At the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, Kiwi artist Francis Upritchard has created a ‘museum’, called Wetwang Slack, of item’s she’s made, from quirky models of people to hats, jewellery, urns and much more. It made me smile.

I think it’s extraordinary that a 20th Century weaver can get a huge retrospective at a major public gallery, but that’s what the late Anni Albers has at Tate Modern. In yet another connection with my Bauhaus trip, she trained with them. It was interesting, but probably more for real lovers of textiles and weaving than a generalist like me.

The Edward Burne-Jones retrospective at Tate Britain was brilliant – well, at least to this lover of the Pre-Raphaelites. I normally find studies and drawings exhibition fillers, but here they demonstrate his craftsmanship. The finished pictures and tapestries were stunning, though the stained glass less so for some reason. Upstairs the Turner Prize exhibition was all films, which I skimmed as life is too short to waste several hours on some pretentious shit masquerading as art.

Oceania at the Royal Academy is probably the best showcase of a culture and peoples I’ve ever seen. Art and objects from some of the 10,000 islands that make up the vast area of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia between them conveyed the real essence of this part of the world. Absolutely fascinating. Upstairs in the Sackler Galleries I was surprised at how much I liked Klimt / Schiele drawings from the Albertine Museum in Vienna. The outstanding skills of these two artists really came over in what were mostly portraits and nudes. Beautiful.

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Contemporary Music

In recent years, the Proms have been embracing non-classical musical genres, and this year it was the turn of folk music, with five folk acts joining the BBC Concert Orchestra in what was a largely successful crossover. The highlights were favourites The Unthanks and Julie Fowlis, but it was good to be introduced to Welsh group ALAW and to sample the music of Jarlath Henderson and Sam Lee.

You rarely hear a musical score played as well as the John Wilson Orchestra played West Side Story at the Proms; you could hear every nuance, every note, every instrument. It moved you and thrilled you in equal measure. Add to that a fine set of young soloists, a chorus drawn from two drama schools specialising in musical theatre and a rapt full house and you have a very special evening indeed. So good, I even forgave them the ticket & programme price hikes, the unnecessary interval and the failure to televise it!

My second and last Cadogan Hall Chamber Prom combined some rare Bernstein works with pieces by his friends and contemporaries, plus a new commission, and it was a funny, quirky delight with a fine performances by American mezzo Wallis Giunta. It included songs set to recipes, one a world premiere, a UK premiere of an early ballet which contained the seeds of West Side Story and six pieces new to the Proms.

Opera

Grimeborn gave us more treats with an inventive adaptation of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman – A Fantastic Bohemian – which moved between three locations in the building. The quality of singing and playing was stunning, and at such close quarters there’s no hiding place. It was hard to follow, particularly on the same day, and as much I enjoyed my first outing of Donizetti’s Rita and renewing my acquaintance with Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, they struggled to live up to the afternoon. Same day double-dips do have their downside, as we found with this and in Chichester two days before, on both occasions the highlight coming first. Six days later it ended (for me) with a revival of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek. It’s hard to believe it was premiered thirty years ago; it’s still original, visceral and edgy and in this production was very well sung, with the Kantanti Ensemble on fire. This has been a great Grimeborn, now fully established as an annual event in my diary.

The live cinema relay of Glyndebourne’s production of Vanessa, Samuel Barber’s 60-year-old opera getting its fully-staged UK premiere, was simply extraordinary. The design was superb, the singing stunning and the London Phil sounded sensational. It has the feel of a Hitchcock film, very mysterious and suspenseful. Wonderful stuff, probably better than being there with non-opera lovers and a 90-min interval to destroy the dramatic flow!

Classical Music

My first Cadogan Hall Chamber Prom saw Dame Sarah Connolly give a recital of English song which included four world premieres, including two by Benjamin Britten written 70 years ago! It was lovely, though somewhat melancholic, which made me feel it might be more of an evening programme.

I appear to be picking well this year, as my next Prom was a sometimes challenging, but fascinating and rewarding 20th century Anglo-American programme with the BBC Philharmonic playing Barber, Britten, Copeland and Walton. Two of the five pieces were new to me, and indeed to the Proms, including two arias from Barber’s opera of Anthony & Cleopatra which made me want to see a production.

Film

Apostasy is a quiet but defiant rage against fundamentalism in all its guises, in this case Jehovah’s Witnesses. Siobahn Finneran is stunning, but above all it’s a hugely impressive debut from writer / director Dan Kokotajlo, an ex-witness himself. Harrowing but brilliant.

Art

James Cook; The Voyages at the British Library was one of the best exhibitions of its type I’ve ever visited. Superbly curated and thoroughly objective, it contained journals, specimens, paintings & drawings and testimonials from experts and indigenous peoples. Illuminating.

London 1938: Defending ‘Degenerate’ German Art at the Weiner Gallery was a huge disappointment, consisting as it does of glass cases showing letters, flyers, catalogues and photos, plus copies of pictures. Only one actual painting and a couple of drawings!

Collier Schorr is a new photographer to me, but her exhibition at Modern Art did nothing for me, I’m afraid. All a bit too pretentious in my book.

A theatrical visit to Chichester was extended to visit the lovely Palant House Gallery which had three exhibitions. Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings had some great 20th century works, particularly those by Vanessa Bell and Laura Knight, but though I liked the idea of including contemporary works, there were too many, and the quality was very variable. It was another of those exhibition whose raison d’etre was a bit dubious. Dance: Movement & Modernism was a one room curate’s egg, but again it had some nice works. However, I loved Sussex Days: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm, a little known Lithuanian British photographer who captured people in the county in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s brilliantly.

It was worth the detour to Tate Britain for Lisa Brice’s one-room exhibition of mostly blue paintings of women. Very striking and very original.

At Proud Central, the photos of the Observer’s late photographer Jane Bown were like a review of people in my lifetime; stunning B&W pictures, some now iconic. Downstairs a multi-photographer selection focused on pop and rock stars; this too was outstanding.

The Frieze Art Fair consisted of thirty or so sculptures placed in a corner of Regent’s Park. It was more miss than hit, but made for a pleasant wander en route to the Open Air Theatre in the same park.

Great British Seaside at the National Maritime Museum brought together the work of four photographers using the seaside as their subject over the last fifty years. I identify the seaside with my youth, so there was something very nostalgic about it, and some terrific pictures too!

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Well, I’m now on the Isle of Bute, a short way off the West coast of Scotland, recuperating after 23 shows and 11 exhibitions in just under 7 days. I’ve lost track of how many years I’ve been heading North of the border for this most addictive of festivals, the world’s largest. Here’s a round-up of this year:

The Traverse Theatre has long been my second home, with an unrivalled reputation for both its own productions and first class, innovative visitors and this year was a good one. Based on my trust in them, we’d booked eight shows here before we’d arrived and added the other two following the buzz and the reviews. The hit rate was 80%, with Iseult Golden & David Horan‘s Class and David Ireland‘s Ulster American (whose Cyprus Avenue wowed me recently at the Royal Court) leading the way – both Irish, both three-handers, but from different sides of the border and very different plays. The very thought-provoking Class examines the relationships between teacher and parents, between parents as ex’s and between both and the child. In black comedy Ulster American, a movie star dabbles with fringe theatre on terms unacceptable to the writer. Both had great writing and fine performances in an intimate space.

The onward march of the one-person play saw Corrie’s Julie Hesmondhalgh tell her husband Ian Kershaw’s delightful story in the modestly titled The Greatest Play in the History of the World very engagingly, with people represented by shoes. You know a story works when you can picture its characters. At other times in the same space, Irene Allan was very compelling in David Leddy’s very different one-person thriller Coriolanus Vanishes, with striking lighting adding edginess. Finally, On the Exhale, also in Traverse Two, looked at American gun control through the story of one woman who’s son was a casualty. Both the writing, and Poly Frame‘s performance, we’re very powerful.

Biographical plays were also a feature this year, and the Traverse had two contributions. In What Girls are Made of, Cora Bissett told the story of her short teenage pop career, with rock concert aesthetics. This was also gig theatre – another 2018 feature – and the true story and the form went well together. Nigel Slater’s Toast was just as effective, a lovely growing-up story with food! Sam Newton as the young Nigel was terrific. Biographical work popped up elsewhere, with Grid Iron’s South Bend – OK, but lacking the usual Grid Iron sparkle – and Song of Lunch, a two-hander which should have been a monologue (the actress was wasted) and in a smaller space. Robert Bathurst seemed to be attracting Downton Abbey fans whilst ignoring his more prominent role in Cold Feet in his quirky self-penned programme biography. There was also more gig theatre at the Pleasance with Songlines, a delightful love story with folk music.

Back at the Traverse, Mark Thomas, who has come a long way from stand-up, gave Check Up: Our NHS at 70; factual (rather than verbatim) theatre. I love his passion, even if he is probably preaching to the converted. The other two Traverse offerings were disappointments. Underground Railroad Game was a somewhat heavy-handed piece about slavery which attempted to shock in what felt like a dated away, and for me came over as rather tiresome. Meek was in Handmaid’s Tale territory and I found it rather dull, I’m afraid. It failed to hold my attention at all. Behind the EICC, in the open air, Polish theatre innovators Theatr Biuro Podrozy brought Silence, a show about refugees I saw in an earlier version during LIFT in London, and it’s grown in impact. The freezing wind added atmosphere, as only Edinburgh can. That was my only international theatre and My Left / Right Foot was my only musical. It’s a very un-PC take on the treatment of disability which was way more effective in making the point than a PC one would have been. Performed with great gusto, it was a hoot and a treat.

I saw Showstopper, an improvised musical, a long while ago and it appears to have become a big thing, in the Pleasance’s biggest space, where a full house seemed to lap it up. I’m afraid I found it very stale and overblown. A year for impressionists, with both Rory Bremner & Jan Ravens and Jon Culshaw delivering the laughs. I liked the way Culshaw’s show was structured as an interview by his producer Bill Dare, but it was Jan Raven’s lovely tribute to Victoria Wood which stole both shows. I only saw one stand-up this year, Malawian Daliso Chaponda, but he was excellent, with terrific audience engagement.

The main festival started well with a CBSO concert of rare works by Stravinsky & Ravel, but the highlight was a thrilling interpretation of Elgar’s Cello Concerto by young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason who appeared to live the work. An attempt at updating John Gay’s The Beggars Opera fell a bit flat, but it had its moments, including the playing of Les Arts Florissants, in costume, and a clever carboard box design. Good fun, but you expect better from Peter Brook‘s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, Robert Carsen and William Christie. Midsummer was an updated version of David Greig‘s fringe play with songs about a wild weekend. I have fond memories of seeing the original twice, but it didn’t work quite so well in a bigger space with the addition of the older selves. The final offering was the worst, I’m afraid, with Peter Brook’s The Prisoner, a very slight 70 min piece which left me hungry. Brook’s minimalist pieces are normally adapted from other forms, but this was original, and I suspect that’s the issue. Good performances and design couldn’t make up for weak material.

It looked like it wasn’t going to be a good year for art, and indeed the big Rembrandt show at the SNG was a disappointment – just 15 paintings and a lot of drawings and work by those he influenced. At the SNGMA, though, there were three treats – an excellent Emil Nolde retrospective, the fascinating Reinventing the Old Masters by Raqib Shaw and NOW, an interesting mixed show by six artists. At the City Art Centre, there was a fascinating show by lost artist Edwin G Lucas, who appears to have been buried by the art establishment. At the SNPG, though, the biggest treat of all was the discovery of portraitist Victoria Crowe who also had a lovely non-portrait selling show at the Scottish Gallery. Tacita Dean seems to be everywhere, so it wasn’t a surprise to see her at the Fruitmarket Gallery in a show that was a touch better than those at the NPG and RA in London. It wasn’t such a good year for photography, with mediocre shows at CAC and SNPG, and the annual Edinburgh International Photographic Exhibition finally lost me by putting image manipulation above the eye and skill of the photographer.

It seemed more exhausting writing about it than seeing it all! Until next time……

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The Rest of July

Contemporary Music

My respect for Tom Jones has grown significantly in recent years, largely due to his terrific blues and gospel albums, at a point in his career when he could so easily be banking money from Las Vegas shows, and his open-air concert at Englefield House in Berkshire didn’t disappoint. A lovely evening, brilliantly diverse set list, a great band and excellent audience engagement combined to produce a very satisfying evening indeed.

Opera

The Royal College of Music put together an excellent double-bill of Huw Watkins’ In the Locked Room and Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse. The former was interesting but the story too obtuse for me, but the latter was terrific, beautifully sung and played and thrillingly dramatic.

GSMD showcased three short operas by students on their composition course in their Milton Court Studio Theatre, performed by first year students on the opera programme. The first was an incomprehensible fantasy, the last a bit of a puzzle, but the middle a good slice of SciFi. Whatever you think of the material, all were superbly performed, though I’m not sure I liked the idea of including four scenes from three classic operas which spoilt the flow of the new for me.

I don’t go to the Royal Opera much these days, but I was drawn to Falstaff by the casting of Bryn Terfel and it turned out to be a real treat – relocated to the 50’s, brilliantly designed, with a faultless cast, though with their obscene top price of almost £200 I was only prepared to pay for a restricted view seat.

My first Prom was an opera, and it proved a bit of a disappointment. Pelleas & Melisande doesn’t really lend itself to a concert, even semi-staged, so however good Glyndebourne Opera’s singers and orchestra (the LPO) the other-worldliness it needed was something the RAH couldn’t provide, so it was devoid of atmosphere and engagement. In some ways, it might have been better in concert rather than clumsy semi-staging. It reminded me of the days when I avoided opera outside the theatre altogether.

At Opera Holland Park, the UK premiere of a century old Mascagni opera, Isabeau, inspired by the Lady Godiva legend (no, she didn’t!), was a real treat. Great choruses, lush orchestrations and two wonderful young leads.

Opera Rara have dug up some gems over the years, most notably Donizetti’s Les martyrs. L’ange de Nisida isn’t the best, but it’s the world premiere of another Donizetti, ‘lost’ for 180 years, newly reconstructed, and sung and played brilliantly by the Royal Opera chorus and orchestra under Mark Elder, with five fine soloists, at Covent Garden. A treat.

The Arcola’s annual Grimeborn Opera Festival got off to a cracking start with an intimate, intense production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia which was so well sung and played, any opera house would be proud to have it. Our five opera ‘passport’ means we see them for £11 each, the best opera bargain ever!

Our second Grimeborn treat was Spectra Ensemble‘s production of the very underrated suffragette Ethyl Smyth’s early 20th Century comic opera The Boatswain’s Mate which was a delight. Great singing, but also great musicianship from a powerhouse trio of piano, violin and cello. Again, the intimacy of the even smaller studio served it well.

Classical Music

Mahler’s 8th, the ‘symphony of a thousand’, belongs in the Royal Albert Hall and the 2018 Proms saw the BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales plus five other choirs and eight soloists succeeded in filling it with joy. From where we sat, the acoustics weren’t the best, and there seemed to be more subtlety in the second half, but thrilling stuff nonetheless.

My third visit to the Proms was a lovely evening of English music from the beginning of the 20th Century, indeed the beginning of modern English classical music, with five works by three people who knew one another – Vaughn Williams, the very underrated Parry and Holst – three of them I’d never heard before. The BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales were again on top form.

My fourth Prom was another treat, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra pairing two London symphonies 120 years apart – Haydn and Vaughan Williams. The Haydn, in particular, sounded better than any other symphony of his I’ve heard. Great to see a full house for something without ‘stars’.

Film

It was good to see Yellow Submarine again after 50 years in a superbly restored version. The artwork is astonishing, though the story is rather naff!

Mamma Mia: Here we go again was way better than the reviews would have you believe, better than its predecessor in fact. The antidote to the hate that now pervades our lives on a regular basis.

Art

Another of those bumper catch-up months for art.

Aftermath at Tate Britain, an exhibition of post-WWI art from Germany, France & the UK, was more historically fascinating than aesthetically appealing, though there were some great pictures. As if seeing 300 Otto Dix pictures in Chemnitz last month wasn’t enough, there were 18 more here!

I don’t normally like staged and posed photos, but I loved Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive at the Photographers Gallery, a very cinematic show which included two captivating films.

Howard Hodgkin, who died last year, became a favourite artist of mine after an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery many years ago, so his final paintings at the Gagosian Gallery was essential viewing. It was more of the same, but the same is simplicity and colour.

I caught up with the Royal Academy of Art’s reconfiguration and renovations in a lovely morning feast of art that started with the excellent Grayson Perry curated Summer Exhibition, which can now breathe, with the Sackler Galleries added for the prints. Then there was The Great Spectacle, a terrific exhibition covering the 250 years of the Summer Exhibition which linked the existing John Madejski Fine Rooms with the Weston Rooms in the main space. Then through a newly opened tunnel to the Burlington Gardens building for the Summer Exhibition’s great (free) fun room, after which It ended on a bit of a low with Tacita Dean Landscape, which did marginally more for me than her companion exhibition at the NPG.

Shape of Light at Tate Modern examines the relationship between photography and abstract art over 100 years. Though fascinating, the photos were largely aesthetically unappealing and it all seemed a bit nerdy. Thankfully, the art was great, with the recently visited Bauhaus featuring.

South Korean artist Lee Bul’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery was full of quirky things, many involving reflections. Some individual works were excellent, but it was the impact of the whole lot that made it worthwhile, a very original riot of brightness. In the project space, Yuan Goang-Ming’s video work was intriguing.

A theatrical day trip enabled me to pay a visit to the Southampton City Art Gallery. In addition to a small but impressive collection of masters, there was the terrific room showcasing the 10-picture The Perseus Story by pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne Jones, exhibitions by living artists George Shaw and Kelly Richardson and Coast, photos of the nearby coastline and seaside by the local Photographic Society. In the University’s new John Hansard Gallery, a Gerard Richter exhibition proved fascinating, though I’m not his biggest fan. It’s a lovely new space.

At the Guildhall Art Gallery, the William de Morgan ceramics exhibition was a delight. It tried to focus on his use of mathematics, but I couldn’t get past the beauty of the pots, plates and tiles! A short walk away, it was the turn of the Barbican Art Gallery to wow with a double-bill of photographic exhibitions – American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing, with photos taken in the Great Depression and of Japanese internment and migration, and British photographer Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds, an extraordinarily diverse range of work in which her travels in the Balkans and countries around the Black Sea captivated me most.

At Newport Street Gallery, True Colours brought together the work of Helen Breard, Sadie Laska and Boo Saville. I loved Beard’s bright and colourful style, but it was rather sex obsessed, all bar one featuring explicit sexual acts. The other two did nothing for me. I’m glad it as a pop-in-while-passing visit!

At the Serpentine Galleries there was one treat and one pointless exhibition. The treat was Tomma Abts’ geometric pictures in the Sackler Gallery, which surprised me by their beauty. In the main gallery, there was an exhibition showcasing the historical outdoor work using barrels of Christo & Jeanne-Claude through drawings and models, mostly of the giant Mastaba they created for the UAE. They created a smaller one for the Serpentine Lake from 1500 barrels which seemed like much ado about nothing to me. Fortunately, this year’s Pavilion is lovely – from the inside. It doesn’t look great until you enter and see that it’s made of roof tiles with a reflective roof and water on part of the floor providing lovely images.

I would never have gone to Michael Jackson On the Wall at the NPG if I wasn’t a member; £18! I certainly wouldn’t call myself a fan, though I liked some of his music, and the messianic behaviour of his late career didn’t sit at all comfortably with me. This exhibition of artworks of and inspired by him was however fascinating, so I was glad I did go!

At the Design Museum, a fascinating exhibition called Hope to Nope: Graphics & Politics 2008-18 about the impact of graphics on politics and protest in the last ten years, including the use of social media and movements like Occupy and #MeToo. A great idea, well executed.

Julie Becker: I must create a Master Piece to pay the Rent at the ICA is one of the worst exhibitions of recent years, and the ICA seems to be in a right old state. I blame you, Time Out. Again.

One of my wanders around Mayfair’s private galleries brought rich pickings. At Hauser & Wirth, August Sander: Men Without Masks showcased the German photographer’s obsessive but brilliant B&W portraits of people of the 20th Century. In their gallery next door, Spiegelgasse (Mirror Alley) was a mixed show of Swiss artists since the 1930’s with some striking individual works by people I’d never heard of. Down the road at LAZinc, Banksy comes in from the streets for Greatest Hits 2002-2008, paintings and sculpture which do prove his worth. Next stop was Spruth Magers where 13 Cindy Sherman staged and posed character self-portraits, some multiples, each in an edition of just six, were valued at over $24m! They were good, but not that good!

Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up at the V&A had some lovely paintings, a selection of her clothes that showed her unique style and fascinating biographical material, but it was too overcrowded, claustrophobic and poorly curated to really enjoy. We fared better in the more spacious, less crowded and cooler The Future Starts Here which was a fascinating peep into the future through current projects and initiatives.

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Opera

At the Royal College of Music, five mini-operas on the theme of Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus saw five composition students produce very diverse responses, including misuse of digital data, genetic modification of babies and time travel. They were all staged professionally and beautifully performed and played by the students. It made me realise opera is a live art form and in these hands very much alive.

George Benjamin’s opera Lessons in Love and Violence at the ROH, about Edward II, lived up to the hype, and more. A brilliant piece of storytelling with great psychological depth, thrillingly dramatic music and some wonderful singing by a faultless cast. One of the best modern operas I’ve ever seen, proving how much you can achieve in 90 minutes without padding.

Classical Music

The BBC Singers continue to shine, this time at Milton Court accompanied by St James Baroque in an all Handel programme. I’d have preferred an all Handel choral programme; as much as I admired the organ concerto, it didn’t really belong. The choral pieces were lovely.

A lunchtime at LSO St. Luke’s saw the Academy of Ancient Music perform two of Handel’s Chandos Anthems in a sandwich with a Trio Sonata, and a lovely diversion it was too. All the works were new to this Handel fan, which was a bonus.

The UK premiere of Howard Goodall’s new oratorio, Invictus: A Passion, at St John’s Smith Square was a real treat. His classical works, like his musicals, are full of gorgeous melodies and this was no exception, beautifully sung by The Choir of Christ Church Oxford, with two soloists from The Sixteen and a small instrumental ensemble. It’s rare that Handel proves to be an anti-climax, but the Foundling Hospital Anthem which followed was; though it was another Handel piece that was new to me.

Contemporary Music

I tend not to go to cabaret, particularly ones made up of musical theatre numbers, as I’ve convinced myself I don’t much like them out of context, but every time I do go I enjoy it and say I should go more often! The first May bank holiday weekend gave me a double-dip, starting with one of my favourite performers, Clive Rowe, at the Orange Tree Theatre. His selection was mostly American standards and his piano and double bass accompaniment was first class, but it was the extraordinary warmth of the welcome and the absolute joy of the performance that made it for me. It was hard for the Stephen Sondheim Society’s monthly cabaret at Phoenix Artist Club to live up to it, but it was a jolly good night, thanks to MD Aaron Clingham and fine vocals and comic input from Sarah-Louise Young, Sooz Kempner and Tim McArthur. The bonus was vising a lovely new venue and feeling I’d brought the average age down, a rare occurrence these days.

I very much enjoyed the first collaboration between Welsh harpist Catrin Finch & Senegalese Cora player Seckou Keita five years ago, but the chemistry between them is now much developed as they proved back at Union Chapel with a new album to play, inspired by the migration of ospreys between their two countries. The big bonus was support from Gwyneth Glyn, a lovely Welsh singer with a great backing group, who was new to me.

I went to see folk ‘supergroup’ Imar at King’s Place on the strength of one number performed at the BBC Folk Awards on TV and a good decision it was too. Though lots of dance tunes can sometimes seem relentless, and leave you breathless, there were some slower numbers to bring some light and shade and I was anyway mesmerised by the musicianship. The camaraderie and banter added a warmth to the evening.

Effigies of Wickedness, a collaboration between ENO and the Gate Theatre, gets its title from a pre-war Nazi exhibition of ‘degenerate’ music, including pieces by Weill, Eisler & Brecht and Schoenberg. Sub-titled ‘Songs Banned by the Nazis’, it’s a cabaret made up of some of this music, but much more, with staging and design that is wild, colourful, loud and in-your-face and hugely committed performances and consummate musicianship from opera, theatre and cabaret professionals. It was often hilarious, but often chilling. Extraordinary.

Dance

Hofesh Shechter’s Show at the Lyric Hammersmith had his trademark earthiness and pounding, but it was also macabre and had some humour and a lightness that set it apart from the other works of his I’ve seen. It was rather mesmerising, with more false endings / curtain calls that you may ever have seen before.

Film

I haven’t looked away from the screen as much as I did in South African film The Wound, about a tribal manhood ritual, which was so authentic it felt like a documentary. Gripping stuff.

Tully was a film that lulled you into thinking one thing before it surprised you by being something else and I really enjoyed it. Charlize Theron was terrific in her frank look at motherhood.

I didn’t go and see The Greatest Showman when it came out because I’d just seen a revival of the musical Barnum, about the same man, covering the same ground, and the reviews were a bit ify. Word of mouth made me change my mind and I thought it was terrific, despite the schmaltz, and definitely worth seeing on a big screen. When the lights went up, I discovered I’d seen it alone!

Art

The Wildlife Photography Exhibition at the Natural History Museum seems to start as soon as the previous one ends; sometimes I think I’ve seen the current one but I haven’t, one day I’ll unintentionally go twice. It was great again, and blissfully quiet. I’ll never make a wildlife photographer – I don’t have enough patience, or a good enough kit.

Known Unknown at the Saatchi Gallery was the usual curate’s egg – good pieces hanging alongside dross. Still, the space is great, and it’s free!

London Nights at the Museum of London exhibits photographs taken over more than a hundred years of the city at night. It went off at a few tangents, such as fashion, but there was much to enjoy, including a stunning snap taken by Tim Peake from the ISS. Along the High Walk in the Barbican Music Library, there was a small display of photos and equipment Inside Abbey Road Studios but not enough from its iconic period in the 60’s for me. Jill Furmanovsky’s photos were great, but they were the wrong subjects for my timeline!

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